September beef export totals were well below year-ago levels, though the value of beef exports through the third quarter of 2012 remains ahead of last year’s record-setting pace.

“We are definitely in a challenging economic environment, which is making it difficult to match last year’s export volumes,” said Philip Seng, US Meat Export Federation president and CEO. “But our products continue to command an excellent price in the international markets and provide substantial returns to U.S. producers, which is critically important at a time when they face extremely high production costs.”

With fewer production days this year, September beef production declined 9 percent and exports fell 17 percent in volume to 90,538 metric tons. September export value dropped 4 percent to $442.8 million but was significantly higher on a per-head-of-fed-slaughter basis — increasing 7 percent to $227.65.

Despite January-September beef export volume being down 12 percent to 850,439 metric tons, export value totaled $4.1 billion. That was 2 percent above last year’s record pace and already exceeded the 2010 full calendar year total of $4.08 billion. Exports equated to 9.8 percent of muscle-cut production and 12.7 percent when including both muscle cuts and variety meat, compared to last year’s ratios of 11 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Export value averaged $213.63 per head of fed slaughter, up about 6 percent compared to the same period in 2011.

September beef exports to Japan were just 2 percent higher than last year in volume (12,487 metric tons) but surged nearly 25 percent in value to $86.6 million. This was consistent with the January-September performance in which exports were steady in volume (121,207 metric tons) but 23 percent higher in value ($806.1 million).

Japan now ranks second in export value to Canada, where January-September exports were down 13 percent in volume (125,625 metric tons) but still achieved a 5 percent increase in value ($829.7 million).

Mexico remains the leading volume market for U.S. beef, but exports to Mexico have struggled in 2012 — reflecting a weak peso and sluggish economy. Through September, exports to Mexico were 21 percent lower than a year ago in volume (151,767 metric tons) and 12 percent lower in value ($642.6 million).

With an expanded tariff-rate quota helping boost demand, beef exports to Russia are on pace for another record year. January-September exports were up 8 percent in volume (61,923 metric tons) and 24 percent in value ($242 million).